Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Lawyers and Latin

Since we've got so many blogging law professor types out there, I'm hoping someone can answer this question for me.

In all the Roberts confirmation stuff, I keep hearing TV lawyers talking about Stare Decisis. What I find curious about this is how they pronounce it. I've noticed that everyone pronounces it as "desisis" rather than "dekisis." Now, the pronunciation of the letter C in Latin is largely determined by what form of Latin the speaker learned. In classical Latin, it would be pronounced as a Modern English K. In medieval and ecclesiastical Latin, it would be pronounced as a Modern English S.

In other words, these lawyers are all using the medieval and ecclesiastical pronunciation, rather than the classical. I would have thought that the Latin taught in law school would be classical. Why is this? Are Catholic schools particularly influential law schools?


  1. Ian Myles Slater1:43 PM

    So far as I can figure out from lawyers and legal dictionaries, American (originally English) "Law Latin" remains stuck sometime in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, and probably wasn't very good even then, being made up of stock phrases pronounced as custom (in the form of aging judges) dictated. It is far enough from anything I have ever heard as Ecclesiastical Latin to suggest that the Catholic Church hasn't been involved with it since the Reformation.

    The American version of It has remained standard in legislative bodies filled with lawyers, which, for example, some of which still adjourn sigh-nee dye (which I eventually figured out was sine die).

    (There used to be more use of "Law French," of which the less said the better -- I think that Swift was already complaining of its lack of resemblance to any language actually spoken anywhere except English courts and Chambers.)

  2. Good Dr: This is purely a guess, mind you. I'm thinking that it goes back to the fact that for about 800 years the only Latin taught in England (which is where we get our legal terminology from) was taught in the Church, hence the medieval and ecclesiastical pronunciation. By that time, it was just too late to revert back to Classical Latin.

  3. Anonymous4:00 PM

    As a classicist and a lawyer, I can
    provide some information. Latin was pronounced in England as though it were English from Mediaeval times and before. Thomas More tells the story of arriving in what is now Holland on a diplomatic mission. The leader of the English delegation delivered a long speech of greeting, whereupon the Dutch replied, in Latin, that they were sorry that they could not reply to the speech specifically as they knew no English. More, of course, had many Continental friends, and was familiar with both pronunciations. When I was at Cambridge forty-five years ago, there were still around a few old dons who pronounced their Latin this way, as they had been taught in their public schools.

    John Pierce